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Recipes and Stories

7 August 2014: Mama’s Pickled Okra

Mama's Pickled Okra, a classic taste of Deep South Summer

Cleaning out my fridge — not just tossing out spoiled leftovers but taking everything out, sorting through and purging half-empty jars of condiments that are no longer really usable, wiping down the ones that were still good, giving up the lame hope that my sour dough starter, untouched for more than a year, might still be alive, and scrubbing every shelf and bin—is always both cathartic and depressing. But it was especially so after the two years of neglect that had been the fallout of three back-to-back book deadlines.

It did, however, have moments of reward beyond the smug satisfaction that the thing was finally clean.

Buried at the back of a narrow shelf was a precious, forgotten jar of Mama’s pickled okra. She’d given it to me two summers ago and it had been put into the fridge to chill and then crowded out of sight. My heart sank. Though they had never been opened, surely they were spoiled by now. It was bad enough that I was already homesick: If this little bite of home had to be tossed out, un-tasted, it was going to be really depressing.

Cautiously, I held it up to the light and examined it. The jar was clean, the seal was intact, and the lid, bright and unblemished. Inside, the brine was as crystal clear as spring water, and the okra pods still looked firm and vibrantly green. Hopefully, I broke the seal, removed the lid, and examined the surface. Everything still looked fresh and firm. With a clean fork, I gently lifted out a pod and looked it over. Its surface was clean and clear, its fragrance as fresh as it was the day it had been put up.

I cautiously tasted and, as the warm memories of summers past flooded my imagination, breathed a sigh of relief. Not only were they still good, they were at their peak of flavor.

Mama’s Pickled Okra

Though Mama didn’t start making these pickles until I was practically a teenager, they’re an indelible part of my memories of summer at home, and my eldest niece, Erica, was quite literally weaned on them. She’s been eating them straight from the jar since she was a toddler, and now that she’s grown up, it warms my mother’s heart to see Erica’s daughter put them away with equal enthusiasm.

Makes 6 pints

2½ pounds young okra, each no more than 2½-3-inches long
6-12 cloves garlic
6 large sprigs of fresh dill, or 6 teaspoons dill seeds
12 whole small hot red pepper pods, preferably cayenne, optional
3 teaspoons whole mustard seeds, optional
About 5¼ cups cider or distilled white vinegar
3¾ cups water
3 tablespoons pure pickling salt or kosher salt

1. Thoroughly wash 6 pint-sized canning jars and new canning lids and sterilize them in boiling hot water. Let the jars air dry but leave the lids in the hot water. Don’t touch the insides of the jars after they are sterilized.

2. Wash the okra under cold running water, rubbing gently. Trim off most of the stem but leave some of the cap intact. Using clean tongs, pack the okra into the jars, first caps down and then cap up, so that they nest in one another. Add 1-2 cloves of garlic, to taste, a teaspoon of dill seeds, 2 pepper pods, a half-teaspoon of mustard seeds to each jar.

3. Combine the vinegar, water and salt in a stainless pan and bring it to a boil over medium-high heat. Divide it between the jars, covering the okra pods but leaving half an inch of head room at the top of each jar. If you have any of brine left over, discard it: don’t over-fill the jars.

4. Seal with the lids and rings and process the jars completely covered in a boiling water bath for 5 minutes. Remove with tongs and set them, not touching one another, on folded kitchen towels. Either reprocess jars that don’t seal or store them in the refrigerator and use them up within 2 months. Let cool completely and store for 6 to 8 weeks to allow the pickles to mature before using them.

Recipe adapted from Beans, Greens, & Sweet Georgia Peaches, 2nd Edition (Globe Pequot Press), copyright © 2014 by Damon Lee Fowler, all rights reserved.

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